Daniel Lanois is a producer who leaves a sonic thumbprint, to put it mildly. Shy he isn't, but it's precisely Lanois' chutzpah that makes him so sought after by graying stars in need of career jump starts. He gave Emmylou Harris a new direction with '95's ''Wrecking Ball,'' resuscitated Bob Dylan with '97's ''Time Out of Mind'', and now he beckons the Mount Rushmore of American pop himself, 65-year-old Willie Nelson, into his atelier: the funky old Chicano movie house outside L.A., converted by Lanois into a studio, that gave Teatro its name.
Lanois' signature sound, best characterized as "deep murk"--moodily atmospheric, echo- and reverb-drenched, lushly decadent--may have worked for Dylan and Emmylou, but it obviously won't do for Willie, whose strength is his lean, ascetic clarity. If he goes easy on the special effects, Lanois leans hard on another of his favorite tricks. Excusing most of Nelson's regular band, he surrounds the old cowboy with a bizarre, ad hoc musical ensemble--a cast that includes a pair of hyperactive Latin percussionists, a cadre of guitarists, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, a Neville brother (Cyril) on congas, Harris on background vocals, and a host of others.
The result of Lanois' interventionism? For the first time in years, Willie sings and plays as if something depended on it. His Texas-rooted sound has always had a south-of-the-border tinge, which Lanois accentuates with Teatro's bubbling percussion. Half the tunes are Nelson chestnuts, but so radically redone that they're virtually new songs. ''I've Just Destroyed the World'' and ''My Own Peculiar Way'' sound like the work of a Tex-Mex band on acid; ''Three Days'' and ''Darkness on the Face of the Earth'' are rocking sambas; and ''Home Motel'' becomes a haunting nightclub reverie. Now and then the mix gets bottom-heavy, a Caribbean revel in which Willie is all but lost.
But when you take the chances Nelson takes here, you're bound to fall flat once or twice. The good news is, another long-distance runner is back on his feet. B+